Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Day of Remembrance

     For people living in the United States, today, December 7, marks the 70th anniversary of the Japanese sneak attack on a U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1941 which sparked the blaze that announced the U.S. decision to enter into World War II.  Both my father and maternal grandfather fought in WWII in the U.S. Army- my grandfather in Okinawa and my father in the Burmese jungle with Merrill's Marauders where he received a Silver Star and a Purple Heart for taking schrapnel in his leg.  Before he died in July 2002, sometime while I was in high school, I think, he gave me his Purple Heart in an old, hinged and cracked, plastic display box.  For me, today also marks the one-year anniversary of our house fire.
     At about 3pm, I arrived home from spending a lovely afternoon with my mother.  We had our hair done together at our favorite salon, she a color touch-up and me, a great cut by the only person I will ever trust my hair to again, Anthi (call her, she's amazingly talented). Easing slowly down the winding street on the way to my house which sits nearly a mile back off the main road, I spotted my best neighbor waving to me from her driveway, and as I peered to the right, there was my next door neighbor standing between our yards also waving to me.  Smiling, thinking how fortunate I am to be close to such wonderful people, I pulled into my driveway, eager to chat with my older and ever-wiser neighbor ladies.  "Hey guys!"
     "Gaby, your house is on fire!" My neighbor yelled from across the street, "Your house is on fire, you can't go in..."
     "...You can't go in, Gaby, you can't go in the house!" my next door neighbor cried, entering into the yelling like singing a round of "Row, Row, Row, Your Boat".
     "What? What? My house is on fire? Where?"
     "The front, near the front- Gaby, you can't go in.  The fire company is on its way! Listen Gaby, listen, can you hear the sirens? They're coming now, Gaby!" My across-the-street neighbor said.
     I noticed that a man was also there working as a general contractor across the street, in the house directly across from mine.  Running over to the front door, I could see smoke in the wall to the right of the door and between the large bay window.  It didn't seem very bad and my instinct was to open the front door, but my neighbors and the man were yelling that the house could explode, which only made me more confused.  It was all happening so quickly and I just couldn't process the totality of the moment, it was fragmented and weird.  "Did you use my hose and try to wet the house?"
     "No, we wanted to, but it's electrical, you can't wet it, you'll electrocute yourself!" one of the ladies said.
     "Fuck it," I thought, "I'm not going to die, not today."  My house is wood and I didn't care about the possibility of my house burning down and being electrocuted.  I just thought that it made sense to wet the wood.  The fire had already burned a hole in the lower part of the wall and was working its way up, so I sprayed the outside of the house and jammed the hose between the wall for a split second, just enough time to dampen it, but not long enough to stand around and get zapped.  I ran to my neighbors who were standing across the street as sirens roared closer.  I was in a panic and all of this that I've described only happened in a matter of about 2 minutes.  And then, I realized, "My cats! My cats! The bird! They're in the house, they're in the house!"
     "No, Gaby, you can't go in the house!"
     I don't know what took me so long to remember the pets, but at that moment, I spotted a state police cruiser coming up the street and I panicked, knowing that I had to act, because once he parked, he would have prevented me from going near the house.  So, I did what I think anyone would have done, I ran toward the house.
     "Gaby, no!" They told me for what seemed to the 1000th time.
     I charged passed all of them and looked to the right at the young trooper pulling up, I remember his face well and met his eyes in a way that said, "I'm going in to that house.  Yes, I see you and I don't care, because you are going to prevent me from saving part of my family."
    Running around the left side of the house, I shuffled for my key to the back door.  There were too many keys and I was wasting precious time. Trying two keys, I gave up, realizing that there was no more time to get it wrong.  So, I used the outer side of my right fist to smash through the door glass, reach in, and unlock the deadbolt.  "Cats! Cats!" I prayed that Fudder, the beautiful Lynx Point/Turkish Van/orange Tabby was outside, playing in the woods, which he loves doing.  He prefers being outside, except in the very cold weather, but I've seen him trek through ten inches of snow.  He has very long legs, a thick coat, and his body is muscular and sleek- he's fast and graceful when he runs.  He's bright for a cat, pays attention to the world around him, making certain that everything is copacetic.
     The smoke billowed, thick, black smoke was throughout the house.  I had no idea it was so bad.  I also didn't realize, despite all my elementary school training, that there was just no oxygen in smoke, at least not enough to safely breathe.  A cat cried, it was Duchess, the chunky, gray, silky kitty and she sounded horrible, like wailing- a deep, awful ouch sounding cry.  I yelled for her to come, but she was too afraid to move.  So, peering in, I spotted her in the corner of the kitchen near the window.  She was pressed against the glass.  She was smart enough to know where the exit is and got as far as she could, she wasn't going back in to run to the door.  I ran in and accidentally took a breath, "Uh!"  The smoke stung my chest and throat instantly, choking me.  Duchess kept wailing, mrrroooowwwwww, mrrroooowwwwww.  I grabbed her by the scruff with my left hand to get a grip on the sixteen pound cat and put my right hand under her legs to scoop her up into my arms and I dashed out of the house.  I tried yelling for Marlin, the more fluff than meat, squishy, orange Tabby who has an oral fixation and licks everything and everyone.  I was most worried about him, because he is an aloof and lazy fellow who prefers sleeping in the comfort of my bed to the outdoors and I knew he was likely in my room hiding, too afraid to come out.  Then, there was Kaka, my nine year old daughter's cockatiel who hates all of us because we are nice to the cats and it makes no good sense to him.  I figured he would be okay, as her bedroom door was always kept closed.
     I said goodbye to my house and walked back around the side to see the trooper walking toward me.  "That's some cut you have, " he said, "Let's go have that looked at, okay?"  I mumbled something incoherent and he put his arm around me.
     I looked down at my right hand and saw there was bright, red blood covering the sleeve of my snow white ski jacket, bright green shirt, and could see drops of blood on my jeans and Ugg boots, "Shit, I had no idea I cut myself.  But my house and my pets, there is a cat, maybe two in the house and a bird in the bedroom that's in the back bedroom with the closed door!"
     "I'll let them know."  He delivered me to a waiting ambulance and in the five minutes that passed, there were two fire companies, five police cars, and a neighborhood full of people looking on.
     Not knowing if I'd have a home to come back to, I said goodbye to all of my stuff in a moment.  I thought that there was nothing I could do except pray to the universe or to the firemen, or to God, or whomever could help to please save my house. The EMTs took one look at my hand and I knew from their reactions that it wasn't good.  "Oooh, that's gonna need more than stitches."  They laid me back, but I refused and called people while they wrapped my hand in a mountain of gauze.  Just then, the school bus pulled up behind all of the emergency vehicles- my girls were home from school.  I sprang to my feet, crying out for the kids.  My neighbor came over and said she'd take care of them until one of our family members arrived.  I felt somewhat relieved, but I wanted to cry.

At the hospital with a fresh wound
     One of the EMTs, an older woman in her early 50s, asked me to sit back so she could administer oxygen.  The ambulance was old, but the ride was free, thanks to our amazing, tiny community of volunteers.  I was cold and shivering, they said I was in shock and had smoke inhalation.  They brought me to an urgent care center where the attending doctor consulted a hand surgeon at a larger hospital via phone.  I heard her tell him that I had no nerve damage or tendon damage, but that I had severed an artery that they had to cauterize.  They stitched me and sent me on my way with an appointment to see the hand surgeon.

Zorro left his mark, five days post-op
     When I arrived home, finally at around nine p.m., the night darkness was met with a giant hole in the front of the house the size of a door, but my house was there and it was fairly habitable.  The front door was open and my family had a giant shop vacuum sucking up mud off of our laminated floors.  I remember passing my brand new, beautiful, huge, cream and baby blue Aubusson-style wool carpet in the driveway, partially rolled and soaking wet on the open end and thinking it was likely ruined.  I wanted to go back to the hospital rather than walk into that disaster.  The kids were still at the neighbor's house and I asked about the cats and bird, "Kaka, Fudder and Duchess are all okay."
     "Well, where's Marlin?" I said, desperately.  I was tired of crying and didn't think I could handle anymore upset for one day.
     "We can't find him."
     I immediately began searching the house.  "Marlin! Marlin!"  I ran into my room and dove under the bed, not caring about my hand being in excruciating pain and wrapped like a mummy.  There was Marlin, cowering behind storage boxes.  He wedged himself in and was stiff with fear.  Marlin and Fudder were rescue kitties, Fudder was a kitten and doesn't recall his homeless days, but Marlin was almost two and spent nearly three months cooped up in a cage at the Humane Society.  When we adopted him, he had forgotten how to jump and was fearful and shy.  We spent a long time getting him over his fears, and in a flash, all of his trauma was remembered and I had to pry him from under the bed where he lay, burying his face in my arms.
     Two days later, I went to the surgeon for consultation.  Through a battery tests, he determined that I required hand surgery, as I had, in fact, severed a nerve and was unable to feel any sensation on my little finger.  He loved the fact that I ran in to save the animals and thought it made for a great story, seeing his face in my mind still makes me laugh.  So a few days later, on the 15TH of December, I went in to a little outpatient surgical center for nerve repair.  X marked the spot and was signed by the surgeon to indicate that we'd discussed that this was the right hand.
     Being guided into the operating room by a warm and welcoming nurse, I entered the icy room with where the walls, floors, and high-tech equipment made me feel like I was on some other planet in the future between the stainless steel and cool color scheme.  Laying down on the table, I had to stretch my arm perpendicular to my body, placing it on a rest, palm-side up.  My left arm was being prepped for anesthesia.  My doctor was peering into the neatest-looking microscope I had ever seen.  He was noticeably more serious than when we met and even a half-hour prior in pre-op, he was still pretty mellow and jokey.  He looked away from the scope, glancing over at me, and said hello with a nod.  I was very nervous, which is not unusual, as I'm kind of a nervous person in general.  The nurse saw me shivering and brought me a toasty, warm blanket from a smaller room.  The anesthesiologist entered reminding me of Ken Kesey and making me feel a little better, in an odd way.  He let the anesthesia begin dripping and warned me that I'd feel a sting.  It wasn't a sting, it was like someone pouring molten steel into my vein.  The pain was greater than my injured hand was experiencing and I yelled while wincing, "Ahhhh!"  Within ten seconds, I was out.
     The surgery was to take about an hour, but instead, it was a two-and-a-half hour procedure.  "Gabrielle, Gabrielle..."  I opened my eyes and shut them again, "Gabrielle, not in my wildest dreams did I expect to see what I saw when I was able to take a look," the surgeon said, as my glazed eyes tried desperately to stay open and focus.  I really hate the feeling of coming out of general anesthesia, it's like being awakened from the dead- all the senses come flooding like calm water whose dam has been lifted.  I just wanted to sleep.  He continued, "So, the surgery took a little longer than expected because I also had to repair your tendon.  I did not expect to see what I saw which was that about ninety percent of the tendon was severed."  I looked on with my eyes crossing back and forth into my head with my ear resting on my left shoulder.  "The tendon is made of these tiny, little pieces that are like super-thin leaves that all connect together.  Yours was being held by one leaf.  If it had completely gone, it would have meant a whole different ball game.  You're very lucky, I can't believe it, it's just amazing."

     A week later, after dealing with managing a soft cast, I went back to be fitted with a splint made from hydrothermal plastic that started out in flexible sheets that looked like smooth cardboard, but which softened to a thick taffy consistency upon heating in water.  Once heated, it was highly pliant and could be shaped and molded in any fashion.  Once air dried in a matter of minutes, the soft material hardens into a plastic shell like magic.  The splint was hinged with metal grommets at the wrist bone, covering the top of my hand to the tips of my fingers with the larger piece extending the length of my forearm.  My hand was positioned so that my wrist was bent at the natural bend with my fingers pointing downward.  I felt like Iron Man.
     On the 4TH of January, I returned to the doctor and had my stitches removed.  Using tweezers, the doc peeled away the Zorro-shaped scab in one, painless piece revealing new, pink, tender skin.
     Tired of the plain, bland plastic splint, I asked the kids if they'd cheer it up and paint it.  My younger daughter painted hearts and rainbows while her older sister wittingly painted the letters O-Z-Z-Y across the place where my knuckles rested, mimicking tattoos that one might see on a burly biker.  It was terrific and completely cheered me up.  For several months after, I proudly brandished my colorful splint.
     Immediately following surgery, I entered into hand therapy and there I remained, going two and three times a week until I was finally discharged in May of 2011.  It was grueling and was unlike the sports therapy of which I was accustomed from my days playing college tennis with delightful massage, cute sports medicine majors stretching my lower back and hot tubs.  This hurt and it was work.  I had to learn to use my left hand for everything, writing was a tortuous feat and forget about going to the bathroom, what a nightmare.  For weeks, I stayed hopped-up on oxycodone, Percocet, because the pain was not manageable with my preferred choice of ibuprofen.  Narcotics are horrible, nasty demons and I have refused pain medicine through out my life because of my aversion to opiates.  They made me feel physically nauseous and emotionally detached.  I stayed in bed most of the time in a drug-induced slump of depression.  After five weeks of drugs and after beginning to need to take the Percocet, they no longer knocked me out; in fact, I would feel stoned and energized.  That scared me, so I went cold turkey and put the garbage away for good. 
     My hand, at first, was stiff from spending two months in a downward-facing position.  I was unable to extend my wrist upward and could neither straighten nor bend my fingers any more than the position in which they'd been kept.  Over time and after many therapy days of crying tears of frustration and pain, I regained nearly all the feeling and movement in my hand.  Apparently, the flexor tendon and small finger surgery, according to my doctor, is one of the most difficult surgeries from which to recover.  The only part of my pinky I can't feel is the outer corner of the finger tip, remarkable, since I had no feeling at all.
     It took a long time for the smell of smoke to vanish from the house and all our belongings.  While the pain was new, I spent weeks washing every clothing item and bed linen.  We scrubbed the walls and ceilings and to my joy, we were able to salvage the carpet.  A couple steam cleaning sessions later and it was brand new again.  It's been a slow recovery for the house, as we were uninsured and have had to do the work ourselves with the constant reminder of the fire.  There's still much to do, even a year later, but miraculously, all we lost was a chair.  This is how my hand looks today:
     It was odd waking this morning and realizing that today marked a day that will live infamously for my family and I.  Typically, I'm not one for anniversaries or sentiment, but this was different somehow.  The day triggered all kinds of horrible feelings of anxiety that I had since put behind me.  The kids were oblivious and I never let on that the day was anything other than Pearl Harbor Day, which incidentally, their teachers did not mention.  
     Tomorrow, my mind will begin to calm itself and writing has probably been therapeutic, as I've been meaning to write about it for sometime, I just wasn't yet able to bring myself to the task of regurgitating events and emotions.  For a moment this morning, I felt a flood of emotion and in writing this piece, I've noticed how much sadness and fear still lingers within me.  It isn't fear of losing my stuff that lingers, it's how lucky we all are to still have a home and our lives- the anxiety comes from the innumerable "what ifs", the immeasurable possibilities that exist in any one moment...
     Like Schrödinger's cat, I believe an outcome is determined by the perceiver- that all possibilities exist, but it's a person's thoughts that create individual reality, internally within the self as well as externally in the physical world around us.  So it's vital that my mind discipline itself, thinking of the positive and releasing Fear.
     The day of remembrance doesn't have to be filled with sorrow, it's only I who has decided to make that one moment or combination of moments more important than any other moment and that just seems illogical and foolish.
     So, on this day of remembrance, I'm shooting for dementia at best, but I'll settle for denial... what, what fire? what surgery? I even bought a pair of rose-colored sunglasses.  The world looks so much nicer when peering through them.     









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